Steven Price began as a poet, so the hype surrounding his new novel, By Gaslight, must have been disconcerting. But that’s appropriate, because it is intended to be a disconcerting story.
The majority of readers probably won’t be interested in either the rumours surrounding its acquisition (apparently a six-figure sum) or the fact that this was the final manuscript worked on by renowned author Ellen Seligman anyway.
In fact, readers who have followed Steven Price’s career will probably simply settle into a dark corner somewhere and sink a little further into their seat, content to immerse themselves in a vibrant and eerie tale beneath the weight of this 752-page novel.
His debut novel, Into the Darkness, explored the after-effects of an earthquake on the west coast of North America. By Gaslight, is more than three times its length but, despite its title, also saturated with darkness.
Oh, the fog.
It’s a wonder that the book doesn’t give off clouds of the stuff when you pick it up to read.
By Gaslight isn’t prose-by-a poet like Michael Ondaatje’s or Michael Crummey’s. (For non-Michael examples: Olive Senior or Anne Simpson.) It’s more like Guy Gavriel Kay’s or Jane Urquhart’s.
Whatever seems to have shifted into his prose from his poetry seems to be less about precision or lyric, exactitude or form, and more about style and feeling.
There are no traditional dialogue markers, for instance. (Those readers who find even dashes insufficient as heralds of dialogue, will likely find a novel of this length, in which dialogue is immersed in the story, challenging if not impossible.) Instead, the story rushes on. Readers are pulled into the swell (or, alternatively, left to gasp for breath on the banks).
The story takes its own shape on the page. “And you do not come from wealth, Pinkerton continued. He had removed his gloves to search Foole and had held them in his teeth as he did so and now he pulled them back tightly over his wrists and flexed his fingers as he spoke. He said, You’re too careful in your dress and your manners. You’re too aware.”
Even here, in the renowed detective Pinkerton’s observations of Foole, the overall concern is with impressions and ideas rather than details and facts. This would be a different kind of novel (more like Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, for instance) if there was discussion of the gloves’ materials and their stitching. And if another word, more obviously pulled from vocabulary of the day, was used for ‘aware’.
No, it’s talk of teeth and tension which matters more here. Atmosphere and sensation. Readers are intended to be immersed.
This should be unsurprising. Because the atmosphere is built from the beginning. In the first five pages, readers meet a man with “eyebrows drawn close, his huge menacing hands empty, as if fixed for strangling”, a city whose “cobbled streets were filthy even to a man whose business was filth, who would take a saddle over a bed and huddle all night in a brothel’s privy with his Colt drawn”, a man “[w]ading through the night’s fog, another man’s blood barnacling his knuckles”, and a woman with a “long scar in the shape of a sickle running the length of her face”.
And whenever readers move onto another scene, it is sketched vividly as well. “They came to a halt outside a tall terraced house. It had long since fallen into ruin, the unpainted railings, the smeared brickwork, the ancient wooden door knocker all cracked and gone green with long use in the foul air. Foole knocked twice then stepped back and brushed at his sleeves.”
And the personal relations are just as fraught and ominous. “It didn’t matter that he liked her well enough. In his world if you turned a blind eye you got cracked overhand with a bottle. You turned the other cheek and you woke up with your pockets turned out and your watch chain gone.”
Even the most personal relationships. “Much later he would understand that it was not her fault. Still he should have recognized the con. The mark, the set-up, the art of the glide. Which is what love turns out to be, when you get right down to it.”
The major scene changes are marked clearly (for instance, 1862 Virginia, 1868 Ohio and 1874 South Africa – the bulk of the novel unfolds in 1885 London) but the rest of the novel slips back and forth organically (memory/recollection and the main characters’ present-day London).
By Gaslight has been compared to Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Patrick deWitt’s The Sister Brothers. And, sure, it’s long, the Gold Rush makes an appearance, and the humanity of even the most distasteful characters comes through in matter-of-fact prose. But these comparisons did not speak to me: Faber’s novel is more outwardly lyrical, Catton’s more structurally complex, and deWitt’s spare and action-packed.
On my shelf, Steven Price nestles in with Caleb Carr and Carlos Ruiz Zafon: melodramatic page-turners, immersed in atmosphere, with haunting passions at the core of their stories. “The truth that is found in a story is a different kind of truth, but it is not less real for being so.”
Is By Gaslight on your stack? Have you read another of Steven Price’s books? Has another overwhelmingly moody book been letting off clouds of gloom in your midst?